Play-by-Ear Tip #7: Break It Down

As you begin working out instrumental solos and other melodies by ear, you may find yourself hitting a wall sometimes with melodies that seem too complex or too long to figure out. When this happens, try breaking the melody down into phrases, and if necessary, break the phrases down even further into short fragments of notes. Then, start with the simplest phrase, and just work note-by-note through each fragment. 

Within each melodic fragment, it may also be helpful to figure out the more prominent notes first - that is, those notes which are held longer or played louder. In particular, locate any notes that are the "1" ('do' or first scale degree) of the key you are in. Now start working out the remaining tones in the phrase.

When you come to a note that is hard to identify, try using this 'pitch freezing' technique:

- Go back to the "1" tone of the key and sing it
- While singing 1, go back to the note you are stuck on and sing it too
- Alternate back and forth, singing 1 and the unidentified note
- See if you can recognize the interval (Melodic Drops will help you build this skill)
- Sing the major scale up to the unidentified note until you match the scale degree of the note

Before long, you will find that you can quickly identify any scale tone simply by comparing it to the 1 of the scale. You can also identify non-scale tones by locating the scale tones immediately above and below the unidentified tone. Eventually you will be able to do this automatically without having to sing up the scale to find the note you're after.

This may seem like a lot of work and analysis just to figure out a short phrase of music, but it is a necessary first step that lays the foundation for you to eventually recognize longer phrases without having to stop, think, analyze and compare. In time, you will be able to do this much more quickly and automatically.